Text: Sujan Tiwari \ Photos : Indepth Photography
“I am optimistic that the political stalemate that has plagued the nation and the business sector for long will now come to an end. The new government must have economic growth as its chief agenda. I am very hopeful about the future. Finally, I can see the light at the end of the tunnel,” says Ravi Bhakta Shrestha, Vice Chairman and MD, NE Group. Shrestha says he is very excited about the recent political developments in the country, and believes that we have better days ahead of us.
According to him, Nepal has suffered long due to the political causes but the private sector has always been resilient. “The private sector is key to development of Nepal. It is aggressive and withstanding, but the government has been very inefficient till now. If there is political stability in the country, then the private sector can do wonders,” says Shrestha.
History of NE Group
The foundations of NE Group were laid by Shrestha’s father late Indra Bhakta Shrestha, but the roots of the family business go back deeper. His family has been in business since five generations, and according to Shrestha, the business was conceived by his great grandmother. “I learnt from my family that though uneducated, she was a very good business woman. The major business at that time was clothing and consumer goods and was based in Indrachok in my ancestral home,” says Shrestha.
According to Shrestha, his grandfather didn’t have much interest in the family business. As a result, his father had to look after the business at an early age as he was the eldest son. He expanded the textile business and imported from India to sell in his shop. He also opened an office in Bombay just to facilitate imports. “My father was very farsighted. When I look back now, he really saw what was coming. He gradually expanded his business and started trade relations with many countries, chiefly India. In the international sector, he started business with Korea. He imported textiles and other commodities from Korea,” recalls Shrestha.
After years of trading in textiles, Shrestha’s father thought of starting an industry. He purchased a factory inside the Hetauda industrial area. It was a closed-down business which he bought and made operational starting with manufacture of textiles. He also started Ganapati Cotton Industry in Biratnagar. Later, he got acquainted with officials from Unilever India and started importing and distributing Unilever products.
“After few years of being a distributor for the multinational company, my father proposed that Unilever India start manufacturing in Nepal itself. The Unilever team was in Nepal for inspection and finally agreed. This was a very big step for our business,” recalls Shrestha. This was 25 years ago. Today Unilever Nepal is one of the most successful industries in Nepal with highest share price and is the number one to declare dividend among public limited companies. The company just celebrated its 25th anniversary in September this year.
Shrestha was born in 1955 in Indrachowk to late Indra Bhakta Shrestha and Jawahar Devi Shrestha. “I grew up together with six siblings, a brother and five sisters. I went to JP High School till the fourth grade. Then I joined Tribhuwan Adarsha Vidhyalaya, a private school eventually giving my SLC exams from Laboratory School,” recalls Shrestha. Later he graduated in Business Administration from Tri-Chandra College. Shrestha says that his mother always emphasised on good education for her children. His elder brother went to USA for higher studies, but didn’t return. “My father wanted both brothers to look after the family business. I too wanted to go to USA but my father didn’t allow me at first,” he says. Later he managed to convince him and went to USA and did a management course with the New York Business School. “After completing the course, I returned to Nepal to assist my father in the business. It was in my blood, I always wanted to return and take the responsibility of the family business,” he asserts.
Diversification and expansion
When Shrestha joined his family business, it was doing well by itself. Fuelled with energy and enthusiasm, Shrestha put all his efforts into then expanding and diversifying the business “The first project I undertook was the establishment of National Soap Industries. It was collaboration with Unilever to manufacture Wheel detergent and OK soaps,” shares Shrestha. Then he felt the need to diversify the family business, so he started United Insurance about 25 years ago. He also wanted his business to be in the banking sector, so he invested in Himalayan Bank Limited. Another big move was starting SRL Diagnostics in Nepal as a joint venture which is one of the biggest diagnostic companies in South East Asia. Shrestha then went on to start Premium Beverage and Food Company to introduce Barista Lavazza in Nepal.
“All I wanted to do was to enlarge and diversify the legacy that was handed to me. In the process of diversifying, I also wanted to try my luck in the tourism sector. Around this time, the Oberoi Group which had shares in Hotel Soaltee was leaving the ownership and exiting from Nepal. I acquired all the shares of the Oberoi Group,” he divulges. He also realized that the brand Soaltee was very popular but only limited to Kathmandu. “I thought of expanding it outside the capital. For that, I started an investment company Soaltee Sibkrim Hotels and Resorts as a joint venture with the Soaltee Hotel Group,” says Shrestha. “The company acquired land in Nepalgunj and started construction of the 4-star Soaltee Westend Premier which has 81 rooms and comes into operations this December”, elaborates Shrestha. He also informed that the property will be upgraded to 5-star in the near future. According to him, the company constructs hotels in various parts of Nepal, and Pokhara is next on the list. Shrestha who is also the Chairman of Summit Hotel shares his plans of up-scaling the hotel by adding 110 more rooms and upgrading the facilities. Shrestha has recently acquired a 9-storey building with 114 rooms in Jhamsikhel that will be converted into a four-star hotel and will be operational in March 2018.
Shrestha started National Ice Cream Industries some years back and is recognised under the Azzabko brand name. The company has recently imported a modern automated plant from Italy which according to Shrestha is one of its kind in Nepal.
Shrestha believes that the only responsibility of the government should be to build infrastructure, the rest of the development works will be taken care of by the private sector. “The government should look at the private sector as a partner, not as a rival. The private sector should be made involved in all agendas of economic development. It has its own expertise and experience and can immensely help in the economic development of the country,” opines Shrestha. He also urges the government to pay attention to suggestions from the private sector regarding amendments of business and trade related laws and policies.
Shrestha firmly holds that the first priority for Nepal now is a stable government, and secondly there is the need for connectivity. “Connectivity is most critical right now. If connectivity is there, all other forms of development will automatically follow. It is true for tourism, agriculture, hydro power and all other aspects of development,” he says. He also believes that if we can only tap into the potential of our natural resources, we can be the richest country in this part of the world.
Shrestha is a strong advocate for reforms in bureaucracy to make it more efficient. Shrestha served as past President of the Federation of Nepalese Chamber of Commerce and Industries (FNCCI). Shrestha and his father became the first father-son Presidents in the history of FNCCI. Shrestha is also a Past President of Nepal-Korea Chamber of Commerce and Industries and has also served the Government of Nepal as Assistant Minister of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation in 2002. For his contribution in the business and industrial sector, Shrestha has been awarded with various accolades including Prasiddha Prabal Gorkha Dakshin Bahu ‘Second’, Gorkha Dakshin Bahu ‘Third’ and Birendra-Aishwarya Padak among others.
Shrestha got married soon after he returned from USA. When dropping his sister to Padmakanya College, he saw a girl and instantly fell in love. “It was love at first sight for me, I found out who she was and knew that she was also from a business family. Unfortunately she didn’t like me at first, but I didn’t give up. I kept pursuing her and made her realise my love for her,” remembers Shrestha fondly. Then the two families met and the marriage was arranged. Shrestha and his wife Kanta have a son and daughter Rabindra Bhakta Shrestha and Resha Shrestha Vaidya. His son is now engaged in the business group as Director.
Shrestha’s hobbies include travelling and listening to music. He says he doesn’t like to work on Saturdays no matter how busy he is. He stays home and rests, and visits the Akash Bhairav temple in Indrachowk every Saturday.
“My parents always taught me that when you earn money, you must give back to the society. This is one tradition that is in our family roots. My family used to do charity in personal ways, but I later institutionalised it by starting Indra Jawahar Charitable trust, named after my parents,” he says. The charity supports areas of education, health and culture. There is a non-profit school named IJ Pioneer School under the trust. All the profits of the school goes towards scholarships for students. There is also a trust of Rs. 10 million for the paediatric department in Teaching Hospital and the interest from the amount goes to free treatment for the needy. Another trust is with the Faculty of Management in Tribhuwan University, and two students receive an MBA scholarship each year. “From this year, we will award Indra Bhakta Gold Medal to an MBA student who secures the highest marks in all of Nepal. The nominee has already been selected for the award this year,” shared Shrestha.
“If you are honest, ethical and have goodwill, you don’t need to go after opportunities, opportunities will come looking for you,” says the seasoned businessman. Shrestha advises entrepreneurs to take timely decisions and act quickly when an opportunity arrives. “To be successful, you must strike the iron when it’s hot. Resilience is also crucial as there will be lots of ups and downs in business, but you must never give up as failures are inevitable in life. This is what my father taught me,” concludes Shrestha.